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How to read the US polls

Oct 26,2022 - Last updated at Oct 26,2022

WASHINGTON, DC  —  Whenever I read polls about a forthcoming US election, the 1980 election in which Ronald Reagan and the Republicans swept the board and changed the country springs to mind. But that vote didn’t break the Republicans’ way until the final weekend before election day.

The late Senator John Culver of Iowa, who lost in that Reagan landslide to the still-in-office Senator Chuck Grassley, told me afterward that he and other Democrats who lost then didn’t pick up on the electorate’s negative feelings until the Saturday before the vote. Then-President Jimmy Carter and his entourage only realised the Saturday night before the Tuesday vote that he was going to be defeated.

This cautionary tale tells us important things to keep in mind as the midterm elections approach: the polls are not predictive. They reflect the political realities of a few days before, when pollsters ask their questions. As appears to have happened this year, they can become outdated by the time they appear in the press, or soon afterward.

It has often been said of other elections that “the polls were off”, and they can be, but just as likely, they were accurate at the time they were taken, yet were overcome by subsequent developments. This election seems more emotion-laden than any in living memory. Indeed, NBC polling released this week showed more intense interest in the current election than ever before in modern history.

The moodiness of today’s electorate is particularly potent because so many voters recognise that the stakes are unprecedentedly high. Those who say that democracy is at risk know what they’re talking about.

Of course, the major issues, inflation (sometimes defined as the economy); crime (the Republicans have recently grasped that this is a big issue); and abortion (said to be slipping as a major concern since the US Supreme Court decision that overthrew the right to an abortion), arouse most of the attention so far.

But polls don’t measure intensity on issues such as immigration (another favourite of Republicans), abortion, and, yes, the Constitution. Donald Trump has exposed the fragility of America’s democratic system, and has shown what can happen if someone gains power who does not respect democracy or its dependence on leaders observing limits.

The very idea that a losing candidate can refuse to accept the result of an election, and then incite violence in order to try to deter the actual outcome is preposterous and difficult to absorb. And that it has become a regular feature of US elections to try to interfere with the fair counting of votes, and the faintheartedness of politicians who see the danger in this, are alarming. Many Republicans despise Liz Cheney, the clear-minded, outspoken conservative Republican and member of the House January 6 Committee, because she dares to publicly point this out.

If one considers the list of current issues, what’s notable is that they are, perhaps not accidentally, things that no one individual can do much about. Still, the public has a tendency to take its frustrations out on the occupant of the White House. And, as in 1980, the country has a president who is decent and responsible but not compelling as a public figure.

In contrast to the incumbent Carter back in 1980, Reagan understood the theatre of the presidency and had the talent to play the role; he may in fact have been better at it than anyone since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Trump is also an actor of sorts, a reality TV star, and has the additional talent of self-invention. He’s making things up as he goes along and appears to know it.

Trump hasn’t had to make up the influence of inflation, a particularly pernicious issue, on voters. Inflation has brought down governments in all sorts of places. At the moment, inflation is rampant around the world, with some countries suffering much larger price increases than the United States. Indeed, it is hard to see what President Joe Biden could do about inflation that he hasn’t tried.

And if one accepts the theory propounded by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, as even some liberals do, that Biden’s successful efforts to get our economy back on track after Trump were inflationary, does that really mean that they should not have been tried?

But for inflation, the Biden economy is quite healthy. Yet Americans are reminded of rises in the cost of living every day, whereas the threat to the Constitution seems more abstract. And, as in 1980, a significant role in what’s going on in the US election has foreign origins, and can make a president look ineffectual and hapless.

In 1980, it was Iran’s last-minute refusal to release the 52 US hostages that it was holding which finally doomed Carter’s presidency. Is Saudi Arabia, which recently saw to it that the price of oil would go up before the election by making deep cuts in OPEC+’s production, this election’s Iran? Both cases raise disturbing questions about the role of crucial foreign-policy developments in US elections.

Whatever the polls say, at the moment there are several significant close races, one has the sense that this election might also break in favour of one party. A realistic alternative is that the results in various states will be disputed by either party and we might not know the result for some time, amid much turmoil. So, the Republicans once more have a stake in creating election chaos.

The problem for Biden and the Democrats is that they’re on the defensive regarding issues they can do little about. One problem with national sweeps, and we may or may not be on the verge of one, is that the tide often brings in embarrassing flotsam, like the Trump-backed candidates for the Senate in Georgia and Pennsylvania. Yet other more recent polls indicate that some crucial state races are tending toward the Democrats.

The US is at a place it’s never been before. Though we might wish it otherwise, much is predictable, even the survival of US democracy.


Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall”. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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